Whoever is Hungry

17 Feb

Passover is still several weeks away.  We have time to think about how we’ll talk about our flight to freedom at this year’s Seder.

Even if you’re not Jewish, you probably know that the Passover Seder is a ritual retelling (and reliving) of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

All good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, and so does this one:

  • Israel arrives in Egypt
  • Israel is enslaved by Egypt, and
  • (finally! triumphantly!) with a little divine help, Israel is freed from tyranny.

More prayers.  A few more songs.

But, the narrative part of the Seder ends on that ecstatic note.

Sort of like that moment in The Graduate, when Dustin Hoffman bangs on the window of the church, Katharine Ross turns from the altar, and the two of them make a run for it, the Egyptians trapped in the Red Sea, crucifix barring the doors.

But, the story of a free Israel didn’t really end that way.

And I’m not talking about the whole catastrophe of modern Jewish history.  I mean the Exodus itself didn’t end with that moment.  It wasn’t all milk and honey right away.

Problem is,  even the wimpiest seder is long enough as it is.

Who has the strength to talk about forty years in the wilderness? We can either have dinner, finally, or keep talking.  Tales about cranky, rebellious, ungrateful Israelites and that nasty incident with the golden calf would just bring everybody down.   Nobody wants to remember that Moses “saw the people were out of control…so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them.”

So, this night is different from all other nights, in part, because we let ourselves graduate from bondage without the postscript; we skip that after-the-mad-dash-to-freedom scene on the bus, when the young couple looks scared and confused and uncomfortable as they enter the world of their choices.

To be fair to our traditions, we do extrapolate a good deal from our literal Pharoah to the infinite varieties of oppression in the world today.

The invocation to our Seder ends with these words:

We are reminded this night that we cannot truly be free as long as others are enslaved.  The message our Haggadah proclaims is a song of universal freedom.

It’s obvious how we must extrapolate this year.  So I’m thinking about it.

Today, I asked my son: “Now that Egyptians have fled their metaphorical Egypt, where do you suppose they’ll go?”

In other words: Yes, but is it good for the Jews?

“Mother, if you are suggesting anything but rejoicing at Mubarak’s resignation, you’re just a hypocrite.”

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.

Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat.

45 Responses to “Whoever is Hungry”

  1. sledpress February 17, 2011 at 8:17 pm #


    • jenny February 18, 2011 at 6:49 am #

      Blessings all around, if such a thing is possible.

  2. Paul Costopoulos February 17, 2011 at 8:28 pm #

    Blessings, yes, but for the Egyptians I doubt they have escaped anything. They went from a state of emergency to martial law, is that any better?
    Just like Moses was promised a land, the army promises democracy and elections in 6 months. Let’s hope their Moses will not strike the rock twice.
    Seder, Easter or whatever is the feast of renewal and hope…most people have only hope.

    • jenny February 18, 2011 at 6:49 am #

      Paul, we will watch and hope.

  3. solidgoldcreativity February 17, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    I love that you’re pondering how to talk about the flight on Seder night. Can’t believe you’ll have scepticism carry the day. So what if ecstacy is wrought not found, momentary rather than lasting?

    • jenny February 18, 2011 at 7:09 am #


      What happens after the ecstasy naturally concerns people who care about the well-being of Israel. When Egyptians choose for themselves, what will they choose?

      How do you regulate your feelings about the prospect that people might democratically elect a devil worse than the one you know?

      • solidgoldcreativity February 18, 2011 at 7:55 pm #

        You’re asking what will they choose. There’s another question which lies underneath: who will they choose to be.

        It’s this question which gives the access to regulating feelings.

        Last weekend the Egyptians chose to be a people who choose freedom. On election day, they will choose again “Who am I going to be?” And in all the intervening moments, they will be choosing who they are being.

        The question you opened the post with is also a “who” question: “Who am I going to be this Passover?” And for Israel and those who care about its wellbeing, “Who are we going to be if a non-preferred leader is elected in Egypt?”

        It’s not what we choose; it’s who we get to be when we’re choosing it.

      • jenny February 19, 2011 at 6:42 am #

        Dear SGC,

        You are so right that the question that concerns me is who we will be. And I know who I want us to be. I don’t think I can say that it won’t be a struggle, though.

  4. Cyberquill February 17, 2011 at 11:59 pm #

    I don’t know much about Jewish rituals. What I do know is that there’s a great future in plastics.

    • jenny February 18, 2011 at 7:10 am #

      Now you’re speaking my language! God bless you please!

  5. Philippe February 18, 2011 at 12:22 am #

    ….Who has the strength to talk about forty years in the wilderness?…..

    A wonderful question.

    God’s ordering the Israelites to spend forty years in the wilderness just because they couldn’t quite believe Him when he said how easy Canaan was to conquer, does sound harsh. And all the more so, since all the Israelites had died by the time this forty years was up, except two (Joshua and Caleb).

    Spending forty years in the wilderness was therefore no laughing matter.

    No doubt Jesus Christ understood this, when, some 1500 years later, He, too, went into the wilderness to resolve some personal issues. Wisely he stayed a mere forty days. But, to forestall possible accusations that He was a wimp for staying only forty days, Jesus ate nothing during that entire time.

    We don’t know whether Jesus drank anything. Still, how many of us today could spend forty days in that forbidding rocky desert wilderness under an unrelenting scorching sun, and emerge at the end not only alive, but – as had Jesus – having withstood the blandishments of Satan to bow down and worship him?

    • jenny February 18, 2011 at 7:18 am #


      My father-in-law (a Russian-Jewish immigrant) shakes his head whenever his fellow immigrants from Soviet Russia express an undemocratic idea. He shakes his head and mumbles: Forty years in the wilderness…

      I find this an interesting secular take on the story.

      I am shamefully ignorant about Jesus. Your story, though, reminds me of a funny bit from the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s THE BIBLE (ABRIDGED):

      — Wait, Jesus was a Jew?
      — Well, he was Jew-ish.

      • Philippe February 18, 2011 at 1:20 pm #

        @Jenny – ……My father-in-law (a Russian-Jewish immigrant) shakes his head…….

        There must be something about the Russian-Jewish experience which is embedded in my psyche, despite my being neither Russian nor Jewish, because a phrase I frequently use is Beyond the Pale, when referring to things outside our common discourse or beliefs.

        That I frequently say Beyond the Pale, may come out of my feeling that I’ve spent all my life In The Wilderness, which, I should tell you, has been for a lot more than forty years.

  6. Andreas Kluth February 18, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    Interesting linkage of the elopement exit and the Exodus. This post is really about “premature climaxes” — or it would be, if that didn’t sound so wrong.

    Watching the Egyptians celebrate, I thought of the dog who was always running after cars and then, one day, caught one. He looked up and thought:

    “Now what?”

    • jenny February 19, 2011 at 6:45 am #

      Love the joke!

      Your summation of what my post is really about may be the reason Riverhead doesn’t let its authors choose titles. 🙂

  7. david osman February 18, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

    i guess we never be free and hugry

    • jenny February 19, 2011 at 6:47 am #

      I don’t know, David, but I’m thinking of heading up to Madison today to find out.

  8. Thomas Stazyk February 18, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    I would have loved to been party to the conversation between you and your son!

    • jenny February 19, 2011 at 6:48 am #

      Tom, my son was voted by his classmates “most likely to quietly take over the world” — that’s what it’s like.

  9. dafna February 18, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    i always thought the gory bits of the passover story were left out “for the sake of the kids” – your son is one sharp cookie.

    either that or someone has been sneaking him information.

    • jenny February 19, 2011 at 6:50 am #

      Hey Dafna, if my son were in charge the Seder would last all night. He’s in his element in this story: Blood, frogs, locusts…

  10. Philippe February 18, 2011 at 10:15 pm #

    *Here’s an excellent piece* for the delectation of all who’ve been following events in Egypt, or who otherwise have at least a vestigial interest in the Levant.

    The piece says that the new young generation in that region is much different from the old. We should therefore not look at the situation there with the same tired old eyes. Must reading.

    • Thomas Stazyk February 18, 2011 at 11:01 pm #

      Fascinating article. Thanks for posting, Philippe.

    • jenny February 19, 2011 at 6:59 am #


      Thank you so much for the article, Philippe. I love the idea that the younger generation has moved on, especially because it mirrors my son’s attitude!

      Speaking of looking at things with the same tired old eyes, perhaps you know (because you have an affinity) that Billy Crystal parodied Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”:

      “I’m Worried, I feel Crappy”


  11. Man of Roma February 22, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    Hi Jenny and you people all.

    One side observation. The US give 1 billion dollars a year to the Egyptian army so they could influence the Egyptian military and tell them: get rid of Mubarak. The Egyptian army in fact did that. Now the military is still in control so there’s some chance the US (and Europe) having understood how petty their calculations were – they supported corrupt elites who exchanged the favour by repressing Islamic fundamentalism all over the Islamic world – will try at last to do something also for the Egyptian people. Although I suspect the Islamic fundamentalists were never a huge problem in Egypt (15% now maybe?), the Egyptian people being ancient, sage.

    Yes, Philippe – excellent article – the post Islamic generation, the children of their fathers, are even a greater hope (do you know that an Egyptian young father called hir daughter ‘Facebook’? Lovely!). I mention the fathers because Egypt was never like Algeria imo. Egyptians are also very proud of what came before Islam. [Jenny, I understand the Exodus thing, but it can’t be denied Ramset II was a great historical figure]

    I believe the same thing cannot work with Libya, so rich with oil they don’t need anybody’s money and where Americans have no influence (Libyans well remember the missiles sent by Reagan directly into the dictator’s villas).

    Europe and Italy (Libya is our ex colony) might influence the events, but so far Berlusconi only thought about saving his ass. Fatal mistake, because if the next Libyan government doesn’t respect the economic agreements with Italy we’ll have A LOT of problems.

    • Man of Roma February 22, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

      Didn’t realise it was so long 😦

    • jenny February 22, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

      So, Roma, I’m happy to give Ramses II his due as a historical figure. He exists in this story (at least in my groovy, macrame version of Judaism) as a symbol only.

      I’m also not personally biting my nails about Islamic fundamentalism, in Egypt or anywhere else. I am really interested, though, in the dilemma (both internal and among ourselves) that Jews face when they think about the survival and well-being of Israel and try to square that with the rest of their political views.

      I recently read Howard Jacobson’s novel THE FINKLER QUESTION that addresses Jewish identity, and, by extrapolation, I think, identity in general, and it has set me on this path of thought.

      It is interesting to me that you mention the trouble that Italy will face if the next Libyan government fails to live up to its agreements. An Israeli might have similar fears about the next Egyptian government.

      Little Facebook and her contemporaries in the Middle East will have to sort it all out.

      • Man of Roma February 23, 2011 at 2:01 am #

        Of course Ramses (or Ramesses II the Great) is only a symbol in the Bible as far as I can tell too.

        There are many stories and legends (plus novels, films) about Ramses and Moses being grown together almost as brothers. The day when Moses, a rich prince, realised that his people was suffering he gave a big pain to his ‘brother’ Ramses by leaving him and leading his people away from Egypt. Hence the pharaoh’s heart becoming as hard as stone from such wound (and with a help from God one never knows). This perhaps created a big problem for the Egyptians since the Jews were possibly a big part of the workforce that built all the amazing things Ramses was building – Pi-Ramesses, his new capital in the Nile Delta, among the rest.

        It is also interesting that the Moses Ramses thing, and the Exodus which of course may have historically grounds, were happening at the time of the war of Troy, around the XIII century BCE. I loved the historical novels of the French writer Christian Jacq on Ramses. He imagines, among the rest, that some Moses, Ramses and some Greek warriors from the Trojan war – depicted as violent and uncouth – meet together in Egypt, which may have happened, but it is of course very unlikely.

  12. Geraldine February 22, 2011 at 7:47 pm #

    Innaharda ehna kullina Misryeen.
    Today we are all Egyptians.

    Yet, I still have fear for Israel. I have family members in the region. They have faith in the genuine desire and longing for democracy, economic opportunity and peace, especially among the young. I hope to goodness they get it.

    • Cheri February 22, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

      I am not an Egyptian nor a Libyan nor a Syrian nor a Jordanian.

      The little green and successful piece of land that was desert and is now Israel is in danger.

      I hope the Arabs get their acts together and stop blaming everyone else.

      (there…I’ve made a political statement and will go back into my hole.”

      • Man of Roma February 23, 2011 at 1:01 am #

        Yes, Cheri, one problem with Arabs and Muslims has always been that, blaming others. Israel is in danger. We hope for the new generations of all Middle-East, which by the way are thick with new wonderful people. They have not stopped to make children.

      • Geraldine February 23, 2011 at 9:21 am #

        Please don’t be offended, Cheri, by my comment above. I have genuine concern for Israel’s safety.

      • Man of Roma February 23, 2011 at 10:32 am #

        I don’t think Cheri is offended Geraldine. Everyone likes you, you are such a nice person and definitely part of the bunch.

      • jenny February 23, 2011 at 11:39 am #

        Hey, Geraldine! I second Man of Roma: Cheri is, for sure, not offended. Don’t worry about it.

        We all ruffle one another’s feathers all the time. It’s one big happy dysfunctional family. (Do you, afterall, know any other kind?) 🙂 🙂

      • Cheri February 24, 2011 at 9:37 am #

        Hi Geraldine,
        I am not offended at all! My comment was not supposed to be a reaction to yours but I can see that I posted it in the “reply” section.

  13. Philippe February 23, 2011 at 1:55 am #

    A solution to address the worries, expressed by some, about what the new Egypt may become, is for an American airborne unit to swoop into Sharm El Sheik from the sea, and to helicopter Mubarak back to his old palace in Cairo. He would then resume governing Egypt before he was so rudely interrupted.

    It would be *yesterday once more*.

    • Man of Roma February 23, 2011 at 2:09 am #

      Such a sweet song Phil … I believe it would be the biggest mistake the Americans could ever make.

  14. jenny February 23, 2011 at 6:47 am #

    Shalom Chaverim!

    Geraldine and Cheri: Israel took my husband and his parents in when they left the Soviet Union. Yes, we’re anxious. (Actually, we’re always anxious.) As for Arabs, what do I know about them? Not much, really.

    Giovanni: This side story about Troy is going to make a great addition to our seder this year! BTW, “Moses, Ramses and some Greek warriors meet in Egypt…” sounds like the beginning of a joke. 🙂

    Philippe: I don’t really know what to do when Sarcastic Philippe shows up. Now, the Philippe that arrives bearing 70s classics from my childhood…well, that is why all the girls in town follow you all around.

    • Man of Roma February 23, 2011 at 10:27 am #


      It seems a joke lol but it is not. They were contemporaries. And the Mycenaean Greeks at the time they defeated Troy were already great merchants: they came to Italy quite a lot, a savage land in that period, and even more to Egypt, the most civilised and Semitic like the Jews by the way. The Jews were there so..

      Only, that Moses, Ramses and some Greek warrior, after or before the war of Troy, had a talk over a beer ensemble (they drank beer at that time, not only wine) is unlikely. But not entirely impossible. Or so I love to imagine.

      Jenny, did you know that the Roman Jews are the most ancient Jews (and btw also Romans) ever existing on the planet? They came to Rome before the diaspora occurred. You can read 1, 2, 3, 4 at my blog if you are interested.

      Among the rest you will read that the ancient Jewish community of Rome sort of hibernated elements of a faith prior to rabbinical Judaism. Today, although they have bypassed such archaic traits, they are nonetheless proud to be neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic Jews. I may be not precise.

  15. Paul Costopoulos February 23, 2011 at 6:55 am #

    Israel is in danger and not only from the outside. I fear the Liebermanns of this world are more dangerous to Israel than many Arabs. Its fractious Knesset and poltical atomlet parties lead to control by extremist marginal factions that could, if unchecked, destroy it from the interior like a cancer destroys a body.

  16. Man of Roma February 23, 2011 at 10:30 am #

    I think a comment of mine has gone into the spam queue since it contained links to infos on Roman Jews you might not know.

  17. dafna February 24, 2011 at 1:54 am #

    i think it is relevant to make a distinction between Arabs and Muslims.

    our family exists because a few fled to Palestine before WW2 – we have a very short family tree. on my mothers side, my grandfather Kemal was Turkish sunnis muslim. Kemal married Claire a jew and converted to judaism, then fell back on his muslim faith later in life. mom was an only child so we have lost our connection with Turkey.

    Turkey has recently had a great increase in fundamentalist muslims, but a history of non-violence towards the jews. they had enough problems with the crusaders to bother with their jewish population.

    And if i am not mistaken, until recently Iran (formerly persia) has a large and consistently well treated population of persian jews.

    israel has a long history of rescuing jews – do you remember “operation moses”?
    8,000 jews airlifted out of ethiopia on an airline normally used to carry muslims pilgrims to mecca.

    • jenny February 24, 2011 at 6:49 am #

      What a great family history, Dafna! I hope you are recording it in some way.

      Of course I remember Operation Moses. I had the best job in the world at the very end of the 1980s, in NYC, when I was just out of school and at loose ends: at a Jewish refugee resettlement agency. It was mostly Soviet Jews (masses of them), but also some Iranian Jews.

      My office was in the SRO hotel where they were housed until they found apartments. Fascinating, every single day.

      Write it down, Dafna.

      • Geraldine February 24, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

        @Jenny, @ Cheri
        Thanks 🙂

    • Man of Roma February 24, 2011 at 9:43 am #

      Your family story is fascinating. Jenny is right, you should write it, also for your son to remember his roots.

      Of course you are right. Turkish and Iranians for example are Muslim but are not Arabs. And North Africa, even though predominantly Arab, has Italians, French, Sicilians, all sort of Christians and Jews, Berbers and so forth.

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